BALTIMORE — The Navy football team prepped for nearly eight months to face Ohio State with lofty aspirations of beating a top five opponent for the first time in 30 years. But several plays that lasted only seconds conspired to undo the Midshipmen, who went toe to toe into the fourth quarter with the fifth-ranked program in the country before wearing down in a 34-17 loss on a steamy Saturday afternoon at M&T Bank Stadium.
Junior quarterback Keenan Reynolds was responsible for one of those miscues, fumbling when he was hit trying to deliver a pitch shortly after halftime with Navy ahead by a point. When linebacker Darron Lee scooped up the ball and returned it 61 yards untouched to the end zone, Ohio State was ahead 13-7 in front of a mostly red-clad crowd of 57,579.
The Midshipmen answered with a touchdown, but a subsequent breakdown in the secondary allowed wide receiver Devin Smith to run free behind coverage on an 80-yard touchdown pass from J.T. Barrett with 4 minutes 10 seconds left in the third quarter. Barrett, a redshirt freshman, was starting in place of injured Heisman Trophy candidate Braxton Miller, who tore the labrum in his right (throwing) shoulder Aug. 18 and is out for the season.
“I’m super proud of our kids. I thought we battled,” Navy Coach Ken Niumatalolo said. “We had some uncharacteristic mistakes that we normally don’t do, and against a team like Ohio State, you can’t do that.
“That’s a great football team, and we knew that coming into this game that we had to play perfect.”
In spite of those errors, Navy pulled within 20-17 on place kicker Nick Sloan’s 32-yard field goal with 13:54 to play in the game. The Midshipmen advanced to the Ohio State 15-yard line on a drive that began at their 25, but slot back DeBrandon Sanders bobbled a pitch and lost two yards, and slotback Ryan Williams-Jenkins was held to no gain on second and 12. Reynolds picked up three yards on third down to set up the field goal.
The Buckeyes all but settled the outcome on their next possession with a punishing 10-play drive that featured their offensive line creating cavernous lanes in the interior of the line of scrimmage. Ohio State ran nine times, including tailback Ezekiel Elliott’s 10-yard touchdown with 8:54 to go, on the way to winning its 25th straight regular season game, the longest active streak in the nation.
Navy, meanwhile, rolled up 370 rushing yards against one of the most highly regarded defensive lines in the country. Williams-Jenkins, a senior, led the way with a career-best 118 yards on seven carries, and senior slotback Geoffrey Whiteside added 44 yards on five carries.
Reynolds had 42 yards and one touchdown on 23 carries. His 31 rushing touchdowns last season were the most by a quarterback in NCAA history.
“I think we did some good things. We did some bad things, certainly some things that I wish I could go back and change,” said Reynolds, who was watching on television the last time Navy played Ohio State in 2009.
In that game, the Midshipmen had a two-point conversion attempt to tie in the closing minutes intercepted and returned to the end zone for the final margin in a 31-27 loss in Columbus, Ohio.
The near miss at Ohio Stadium, in addition to the wealth of talent back from a team that went 9-4 and won a bowl game last season, had the Midshipmen girding for an upset this time around, and in the first half, the script was unfolding accordingly. Navy’s defense was especially stout in holding the seven-time national champions without a first-half touchdown for the first time since 2011.
But the Buckeyes leaned on their superior depth following halftime, when they amassed 258 of their 420 total yards. Ohio State also rushed for 128 yards in the second half and finished with an average of 4.8 yards per carry.
“Honestly, I don’t know if we’ll play a tougher team, and you’re not going to see anything like that all year,” Buckeyes defensive tackle Michael Bennett said. “It’s a grind with them. It was a battle all game. Props to Navy. They’re going to win a lot of games this year.”
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